On Wednesday, June 26, Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, Turkey would not be allowed to purchase the high-tech F-35 fighter jet if the country buys the Russian-made S-400 mobile long-range surface-to-air missile system.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, claiming U.S. President Donald Trump knows Turkey needs the air defense system, said Ankara would take the U.S. to international arbitration court to recoup the $1.25 billion dollars the country has already spent on the F-35 project.
India, which has also faced U.S. pushback on purchasing the S-400, says it will move ahead with its own $.5.2 billion deal with Russia. Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said his country would do “what is in our national interest.”
Amid the S-400 procurement controversy, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited India on June 25-26.
The national Turkish broadcaster TRT reported, citing Indian media, reported that State Department officials had previously urged “allies and partners, including India, to forgo transactions with Russia that risk triggering the CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act).”
CAATSA calls for sanctions against countries engaged in “transactions with the intelligence or defense sector of the government of the Russian Federation.”
Coinciding with Pompeo’s visit, the retired vice chief of the Indian Air Force, Air Vice Marshall Kapil Kak, was quoted by Turkey’s Anadola News Agency on June 26 that “the S-400 is perhaps the best air defense system in the world.”
“My calculation is that the S-400 is superior to any other system. It also depends on the specific Patriot that’s on offer,” Kak aid. “For the S-400, we know exactly what it means. We’re not sure when Americans tell us about [the Patriot missile defense system]. They were used in the Gulf War and subsequently upgraded. Various tests done later don’t make them superior. I don’t think they will either interest Turkey or India. That’s my belief.”
Polygraph.info video fact check by Nik Yarst.
Ranking air defense no easy task
Kak is not alone in preferring the S-400 to similar air defense systems.
Sameer Ali Khan, a visiting fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said the S-400 is a cut above the US Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems.
“The S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system is a formidable capability that can strike aerial targets at ranges up to 400 km and ballistic missiles at ranges of up to 15 km,” Khan said. “The available alternatives—PAC-3 and THAAD—do not compare in terms of capabilities. Unlike the S-400’s 40N6 (400 km) interceptors, PAC-3 can only intercept aerial targets at a range of 180 km and ballistic missiles at a range of 100 km. THAAD, on the other hand, is strictly an anti-missile weapon system and cannot intercept aircraft.”
Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher for the Arms and Military Expenditure Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told Polygraph.info that the superiority of any given air defense system depends on the type of defense being considered.
“Patriot is offered as the weapon against aircraft, cruise missiles and shorter-range ballistic missiles (as currently used against Saudi Arabia). For defense against longer-range ballistic missiles, the USA offers other systems that act as a separate layer (THAAD, Aegis Ashore and the ship-based SM-6). S-400 does what Patriot does but has options for long-range missiles that can do part of what the extra US layer does – in that way it is more flexible and better than Patriot,” Wezeman said.
Wezeman said that the S-400 also provides cheaper defense against ballistic missiles than the “separate U.S. layers,” noting the THAAD is very expensive as a single-purpose anti-missile system.
The S-400 reportedly costs $500 million, while a Patriot Pac-2 battery costs $1 billion and a THAAD battery is $3 billion.
Cost notwithstanding, Wezeman said the U.S. anti-missile systems “are more capable against really long-range ballistic missiles (e.g. against North Korean medium or long-range missiles).”
Douglas Barrie, a Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Polygraph.info that attempting to create “a crude” ranking system of air defense systems “isn’t really informative.”
Barrie said the S-400 is a “highly capable surface-to-air missile system when – like any other weapon – it is operated effectively.”
“Alongside the Patriot family, the U.S. has also begun to offer the THAAD system for selected countries. The latter is also a capable SAM system optimized to deal with particular classes of ballistic missiles – but, again, a ranking against the S-400 is not particularly helpful since the two systems are not designed to counter exactly the same threats,” Barrie said.
What does S-400 mean?
It is not just the functionality of any given air-defense system that makes comparisons difficult. Wezeman said one reason it is difficult to pin down the S-400’s superiority is that the exact nature of an S-400 system is unclear.
James Bosbotinis, a UK-based specialist in maritime and air force developments, told the Defense IQ research and media portal that the S-400, as it is employed by Russia, does not, in and of itself, form an impenetrable dome. Rather, it is one component of “a layered integrated air defense system,” which also includes short- and medium-range air defense systems, electronic warfare assets airborne early warning systems, fighter aircraft and ground-based radars.
“This layered integrated air defense system is intended to form an entity stronger than the sum of its parts,” Bosbotinis said.
Wezeman shares that view, pointing out the S-400’s “effectiveness is multiplied when linked to the network.”
“The S-400 and its competitors can act as stand-alone weapons, but their effectiveness is multiplied when linked to the network. The U.S. offers more advanced parts of such a network (including radar aircraft and command & control systems) than Russia, so one can buy a whole package of integrated systems from the USA instead of some systems from Russia that need still to be integrated with network bits from other suppliers. In that way, the U.S. offer can be superior to that of Russia (but at a high price).”
Defense IQ also noted it is unknown whether or not Russia is selling a watered down version of the S-400, further complicating efforts at comparison.
Another complication in vetting the S-400’s efficacy is that it never has been tested in combat, Wezeman said, as a much earlier version of the U.S. Patriot system was used in the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
Still, he said Russia has a long track record of developing good air-defense systems, making it likely the S-400 is also good.
“On paper and in testing it looks good – as good as the other systems,” Wezeman said. “So how well the S-400 works compared to the other systems is an unknown.”
Thomas Karako, a Senior Fellow of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), likewise told Polygraph.info the “S-400 looks good on paper.” However, like Wezeman, he noted it never has been tested in combat.
"Some of older American systems are in the process of being updated, to be sure, but I don’t think anyone doubts the broader technical U.S. superiority in this field,” he said.
So while there is a very strong argument to be made that the S-400 is a world-class air defense system, Polygraph.info finds claims regarding its superiority to be unclear.